This is a young man’s league, with fans and media fixated on Luka, Giannis, and the coming of Zion. It’s no league for old men, but that hasn’t stopped Dwyane Wade, Vince Carter, and Dirk Nowitzki from taking a victory lap. It’s just a slow one.
Elton Brand won’t be 40 until March. That’s young for an NBA executive, but it wasn’t that long ago that he was old for an NBA player. At the back end of his career, when he was pretty sure he was finished playing, he got talked into putting off retirement to do [extremely heist movie narrator voice] one last job.
This was back in January 2016. Brand and the Atlanta Hawks had parted ways. That’s when Brand got a call from the Sixers. It was a delicate period for the Process. The Sixers were losing games, lots of them, and hope was in short supply. This was when the big Sixers debate was over whether Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel could be on the floor at the same time. Reflexive conventional wisdom around town—among sports-radio callers and crusty, back-in-my-day media types—held that the team needed a veteran presence. Or, in the favored provincial parlance of the day, “an adult in the locker room.” Imagine a lot of angry, accented Philadelphians doing the kids these days shtick.
Brand was somehow supposed to cure all that by, I dunno, wearing dad jeans and explaining to the team’s 20-somethings how rough he had it with 16-bit video games and non-HD TV. Or something. I wasn’t entirely sure then, and I’m still not. Brand eventually signed with the Sixers—but first he went on vacation for three weeks. That is a power flex, one that can be executed by only someone with no fucks left to give, who had clearly come to terms with what everyone else already knew: He was washed.
Brand played 17 games that season and averaged 13 minutes, most of which were in super-slow-motion. Malik Rose, now the Pistons assistant GM, was the Sixers color commentator at the time. He used to call Brand “an old-school Chevy” on the broadcast whenever he’d shift into a well-below-the-speed-limit post move. The NBA has and always will be the dominated by newer, faster, flashier models, but it was hard not to appreciate a big-body classic out on the court for one last ride.
We spend a lot of time talking and thinking about the future of the NBA, and with good reason. It is a young man’s game and a young man’s league. Luka Doncic. Deandre Ayton. Jaren Jackson Jr. Those are names for today and tomorrow, but I’ve increasingly enjoyed all the opportunities to reminisce about yesterday. The older I get, the more I find myself following players in a comparable age bracket. Watching the washed has become a game within the game. And as , being washed isn’t so bad when you accept it and do it right.
Dirk Nowitzki is doing it right. It’s hard to imagine anyone having more fun at this stage of his career than the giant German. After recovering from ankle surgery, Nowitzki finally began his 21st season in mid-December with a road game against the Suns. Dirk came off the bench late in the first quarter to record his first bucket of the year—a mid-range bankshot. Then he lumbered back up the court ever so carefully. It could not have been more on brand. Nowitzki played six minutes that night. He played eight more in the following game against the Kings, and seven against the Nuggets after that. You can’t rush these things—not for any player coming off an injury, and certainly not for one who’s been around as long as Dirk.
He’ll be 41 in June. He’s played nearly 1,500 games in his career and logged almost 51,000 minutes. That’s a lot of miles on his long legs, which teammates like DeAndre Jordan never let him forget when teasing at practice, “look at that old man run.” As he told , Dirk has to go through “a million” things before a game just to be available, among them getting work on his hip, spine, shoulder, and whatever else might be nagging him on a given day. And all for limited action. He’s in the age range now where maintenance matters, and even then there’s no guarantee of peak performance—like when he made a basket last year, only to subsequently throw himself off balance with a celebratory finger wag.
Nowitzki has always had an old-man game, but it’s been a lot of fun watching him embrace being an old(er) man. Following last season, Dirk laughed along with the rest of us when his trainer repeatedly dunked on him.
— Dirk Nowitzki (@swish41) May 1, 2018
He’s a long way from the good old days of kicking around Dallas with his buddy Steve Nash. I lived and worked in Dallas in the early 2000s and covered them for a while during that era. We’re all roughly the same age. At the time, I used to go out a lot and get drunk with my friends. They did too. There was always a chance of running into them in Deep Ellum or the West End—sometimes while Nash was literally running. (There are legendary stories about Nash going bar hopping and running from establishment to establishment to keep in shape.) That was a long time ago. Nash is a consultant for the Warriors now, and he’s recently signed on as a soccer analyst for Turner Sports. Nowitzki will eventually join his pal in whatever post-playing afterlife awaits—it’s long been rumored that a cushy front-office gig with the Mavs is his whenever he’s ready— but I hope he postpones that next chapter as long as possible. The story of his career is in the coda phase, but I’m not quite ready to close the book on him. I’ve always loved watching Dirk play, but now there’s a selfish, vicarious component to it. I use my fingers for a living, and even going for a short run these days leaves me in danger of winding up in traction. Nowitzki has become a sort of inspirational avatar. Sure, he gets victimized on defense (the Mavs have an unsightly 135 defensive rating with Dirk on the floor), but you have to be in the game before you get targeted. Dirk might not be out there doing it as well as he used to, but he is still out there doing it.
Of course, you can’t delay the inevitable. Like Nowitzki, there are handful of players from our generation who remain in the league, though not for that much longer. Kyle Korver will be 38 in mid-March, while Jamal Crawford will turn 39 a few days later. Udonis Haslem and Pau Gasol will be 39 in June and July, respectively. Whatever time they have left in the NBA is limited. Dwyane Wade will be 37 in January, and he’s already beaten some of his contemporaries to calling it quits. He’ll retire after this season. The man once regularly referred to as Flash has slowed considerably—which hasn’t prevented him from enjoying one last run. The long farewell tour has featured a memorable goodbye with Banana Boat buddy LeBron James. And when he’s finally, officially finished, Wade can take a load off and plop down in the rocking chair that ball-buster Donovan Mitchell gave him. Mitchell is only 22 and a long way from the end of his career, but one day later in life he’ll realize an incontrovertible truth: Sometimes you can really go for a good sit, and a rocking chair is as good a place as any.
The end comes for all athletes. Even the greats. Even, one day, LeBron. That day is still a ways off (he’ll be 34 at the end of December), though he’s recently signaled his preparation for it. Earlier this month James tweeted that he went to bed at 8:30 p.m., slept for 11 hours, and missed his company holiday party. That admission got quite the reaction—from his (much younger) teammate Kyle Kuzma jabbing at him, to my (much younger) teammate Haley O’Shaughnessy jabbing at him. LeBron is still at the top of his game, but there’s something super endearing about someone of his obvious, outsize ability going full dad mode and leaning into his pre-washed period.
Not everyone embraces the transition, though. At a much more advanced washed stage, Michael Jordan did everything he could to hang on in Washington. Brendan Haywood once told me that when they were both with the Wizards, Jordan would beat everyone to the practice facility to get in his legendary workouts and study scouting reports. “It was great for me, as a young guy, to see a guy who was, at that point, 40 years old,” Haywood said, “but who was still doing every little thing that it took to be successful.”
Vince Carter understands that impulse. Maybe he isn’t white-knuckling the end of his playing days quite the same way Jordan did, but Carter isn’t ready to let go of the wheel, either. He will be 42 in January. That makes him the oldest active player in the NBA. We were born barely a month and a half apart. Back in the summer, before I knew he was going to be my Ringer colleague and host the podcast for us, I reached out to Carter about his career and what it was like to be at the back end of it. It remains fascinating to me that he made a name for himself as Vinsanity, someone rightly billed as Half Man, Half Amazing for his uncanny athleticism—only to abandon that approach years ago in favor of a much different, less physically demanding, jumper-dependant game that has kept him in the NBA for 21 seasons and counting. More than anything, I wanted to know what it was like for him to be in a league that favors the young now that he is decidedly … not that. The age divide is something I think about at my job too. In a recent Ringer slack post, one millennial staffer told another millennial staffer to “stop acting 40.” Blogging, like basketball, evidently belongs to the young. Why keep putting himself through what he called “the long checklist” required to keep him on the floor when he could take the many millons he’s made and go put his tired feet up somewhere?
“For some weird reason, I still don’t have an answer for it,” said Carter, who’s averaging roughly 18 minutes per game for the Hawks this season. “I wanted to play 15 years. Some of the greatest played 12 to 14. Taking care of my body has allowed me to play six more years or so. I don’t know when the end is going to happen. After every year, I see how I’m feeling and then go from there. When you go through the season, people keep saying to me, ‘Keep your phone handy, we’re interested.’ It’s hard to say, ‘I’m not going to play anymore.’ I could be 47 before that happens.”
Carter said he was cool being the old guy who gets called on more these days for his counsel in the locker room than his contributions on the court. He seemed so zen about the whole thing. The way he explained it, knowing that he’s a different player now doesn’t change who he was or what he did way back when. There’s beauty in acceptance. When I asked whether he might have one last dunk contest in him for old time’s sake, his age-appropriate answer made me nod and smile.
“Yeah,” he said without hesitating, “in a video game.”